A new report from the World Health Organization reveals that our collective lack of exercise will take a heavy toll in the years to come if nothing changes. The report estimates that there will be nearly half a billion new cases of non-communicable disorders like heart disease and diabetes due to physical inactivity by 2030. It also found that many countries are doing little to help people stay active, such as building safer pedestrian routes. .
The findings come from the WHO’s first-ever global status report on physical activity. It analyzes data from 194 countries on how often people are physically active and the policies countries have in place to promote physical activity. As part of the report, the authors also calculated the potential effects on health systems if people’s level of exercise remained the same until 2030. These latest estimates will be published in a future article, but can be viewed in a preprint of The Lancet which was released last week.
Often more than one factor contributes to a person’s heart disease or other non-communicable disorder (NCD), and only some of these risk factors are preventable or can change for the better. But numerous studies have shown that any amount of exercise, regardless of a person’s age, can help people stay healthier. Based on other research, the authors attempted to calculate the fraction of preventable NCDs strongly linked to lack of physical activity that would emerge over the next decade, focusing specifically on seven major conditions: heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain cancers, dementia and depression.
Overall, the authors estimated that nearly 500 million new cases of these conditions would occur between 2020 and 2030 worldwide. These cases would also accrue approximately $300 billion (USD) in direct medical costs over this period and approximately $27 billion per year by 2030. Most of these cases (approximately 74%) would occur in countries with low to middle income, but the economic costs would be higher in high income countries (about 64%).
“This study calls for urgent actions by countries to prioritize investments in interventions that reduce this modifiable risk factor,” the authors wrote.
So far, however, it seems that most countries are falling short of such investments. The WHO report found that less than half of countries even have a national physical activity policy. Only 30% of countries have established national physical activity guidelines for all age groups. And while most countries have some way of tracking activity for adults, less than 30% do the same for children under 5. The implementation of many of these policies, such as nationally organized running or walking events, has been furthered by the covid-19 pandemic, the report authors note.
There are a myriad of reasons why people aren’t as physically active as they could be, and many of these are beyond their control, such as the type of job and hours they work. have. But the report also highlights the steps governments are failing to take to encourage a more active lifestyle for residents. Only 40% of countries, for example, have road design standards that would make walking and cycling safer.
“We need more countries to step up the implementation of policies to help people be more active through walking, cycling, sports and other physical activities. The benefits are enormous, not only for the physical and mental health of individuals, but also for societies, environments and economies,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement announcing the report. “We hope countries and partners will use this report to build more active, healthier and fairer societies for all.”
Some of the recommendations provided by the WHO to encourage physical activity include more open public spaces, passable roads and other infrastructure, and more sports or gymnastics activities at school. There is also a need to improve data collection, as little is known about people’s access to parks and other ways to help people become more active.
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